Richard Desmond: 'Damaging for me to look like a wimp'

Desmond says it would be damaging for him to appear to be a ‘wimp’

Desmond denies he was ‘ground into the dust’ by Conrad Block

Bower claims Desmond read too mucb into ‘obscure passage’

Bower argues Desmond was running a vendetta

Newspaper proprietor Richard Desmond yesterday began his libel case over claims that he abused his position to pursue a personal vendetta against Conrad Black and was then forced into a humiliating climbdown.

Desmond’s counsel, Ian Winter QC, branded the allegations in writer Tom Bower’s unauthorised 2006 biography of Lord Black, as “highly defamatory and wholly false”.

He said Desmond, the owner of Northern & Shell, which owns the Express newspaper group, was “caught in the cross-fire” as Bower pursued his thesis that Black would crush opponents by using libel writs.

Bower denies libel and says that what he wrote about Desmond in “Conrad And Lady Black: Dancing On The Edge” was substantially true and was not, in any event, defamatory.

Winter told Mr Justice Eady and a jury at London’s High Court that the passage complained of contained ten major factual errors and that Bower fell “a very long way short” of being able to prove his case.

It was not true that Desmond was motivated by personal revenge, after losing a court dispute with Black over the West Ferry printing plant, to order an Express paper to run an inaccurate story, in November 2002, that Hollinger was facing financial crisis after a bank had withdrawn a loan.

Desmond knew nothing about the story, which was prompted by an article in a financial journal, until around the time of publication and it had no connection with the West Ferry dispute, said counsel.

Winter said correspondence between Desmond and Black showed that there was no personal vendetta between the two men, despite the mutual “ribbing” in their newspapers.

He added that during the September 2003 libel mediation, Desmond was not “ground into the dust”, as the book said, and did not accept a humiliating settlement by apologising for something which was actually true.

The story about the loan being withdrawn had turned out to be false and Mr Desmond had offered to apologise for it three months before – maintaining this position at the mediation.

He, in turn, required – and secured – an apology from Black for being wrongly called an “ex-convict” in one of his newspapers.

Winter said: “If anyone climbed down, it was Lord Black.”

He added that the action was not about money but vindication.

“Mr Desmond, as a businessman, has to deal with people and if they believe that, despite having this tough reputation, he is a wimp and can be made to say sorry for things that are true, it can be very damaging for him.”

‘Desmond reading too much into it’

Outlining Bower’s case, Ronald Thwaites QC said that any man – like Mr Desmond – who owned four newspapers must be “immensely wealthy, powerful and influential”.

He asked the jury to consider what Mr Desmond was doing in court over an “obscure passage” in a specialist biography of 413 pages about a former business rival.

Suggesting that Desmond had a thin skin for a newspaper proprietor, he added: “We say it isn’t worth the effort, it is not defamatory at all, he is reading far too much into it.”

He told the jury: “Mr Desmond is here because he wants to tell the world that he is not a wimp – I am Richard Desmond, owner of four newspapers. Where does he read this into the passage?

“I suggest the truth is he was bested by Lord Black. Lord Black got the better of him – as he did lots of people – until justice eventually caught up with him, and Mr Desmond can’t take it, and that’s why we’ve got all this convoluted performance into what these words mean.”

Counsel said that the case was all about human nature.

“If this man wants to come here and complain about his reputation, we say firstly that this passage does not damage your reputation – it’s much ado about nothing.

“But, if you want to scratch the surface and take us on – whether we can prove the underlying truth – I tell you that we can and we will in its fundamental particulars.

“It is going to be an extremely searching defence and scrutinising of Mr Desmond.”

He said that only Desmond’s papers were monitoring Hollinger’s continuing financial crisis.

Desmond may have written Black a two-line letter of congratulation on his peerage but in a “tasteless quite savage” article his newspaper had likened Black to “charlatans” like Lord Archer, Lord Lucan, Lord Kagan and Lord Harlech, who had all been connected with crime.

“Richard Desmond is going to present in front of you that they were friendly – of course they weren’t, there was nothing but enmity and hostility between them.”

‘Desmond was running vendetta’

Thwaites said that he had good evidence that Desmond was running a vendetta and that he was interfering in the editorial content in relation to Black.

He said that after the journal, which was the source for the inaccurate article, had apologised, Desmond continued to fight the libel case brought by Black in a full-blooded way for five or six months.

He disputed that Black had ever apologised to Desmond at the mediation – he had made an “expression of regret”. Moreover, Desmond had to pay legal costs to Black.

“Of course Lord Black ground him into the dust.”

He told the jury: “We say Mr Desmond is suffering from delusions. You have to strain every syllable of this passage to find something defamatory in it. If you succeed in doing that, we say we have a full answer.

“If you reject that and say he was defamed, then our third position is that you shouldn’t give him any damages anyway because he has a bad reputation as a newspaper proprietor for having a go at people he doesn’t like through his newspaper.”

Thwaites said that he would call journalism professor Roy Greenslade to speak about Desmond’s general reputation.

Desmond: ‘I was not ground into the dust’

Giving his evidence from the witness box, Desmond said he had not ordered publication of the articles in November 2002 and had nothing to do with the writing of them.

Winter put to him: “At the time these two articles were published did you have any reason to think that there was anything untrue about them.”

Desmond replied that he had not.

Asked if publication was “in order to exact personal revenge against Conrad Black”, Desmond denied this was the case.

Referring to litigation over the West Ferry dispute, the QC asked if there had been any “personal rancour” towards Conrad Black, or whether it had given rise to a need to “get revenge”.

Desmond answered “no” to both questions.

Referring to the libel mediation, Desmond said there was “an apology from me to him and an apology from him to me”.

There was no hostility between himself and Lord Black, he said.

Counsel put to him: “Did he grind you into the dust?”

Desmond: “No.”

Winter: “Did he humiliate you?”

Again Mr Desmond simply replied: “No”.

They both came out “holding our heads up”, he told the jury.

Winter asked: “Is there any basis for any suggestion that you were humiliated and ground into the dust.”

He answered: “Absolutely not. I was not ground into the dust.”

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